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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

THE ABC'S OF HOW 'NOT' to WRITE SPECULATIVE FICTION - B is for BELIEVABILITY


I THINK THE GOAL OF BELIEVABILITY isn’t too hard for a writer to attain as long as he's put in his hours and has honed his craft. Most readers will suspend their disbelief for the sake of a great story. Our job is to divert them so well, that they enter our reality completely and keep turning our pages.

As an editor with over twenty years' experience, I’ve found that anything that disturbs my involvement in a story is often a technical, ‘lack of depth’, or ‘writer manipulation’ problem. Technical problems disrupt flow. They’re easy to fix, once you understand they’re an issue. I’ve already posted about a few of them (action, anachronisms, use of adverbs), but I’ve listed a few more here. Broken flow may be triggered by:

o   anachronisms
o   awkward dialogue
o   clichés
o   expository lumps
o   heavy dialects
o   incompatible or vague word choices
o   mixed or dead metaphors
o   overuse of exclamation marks, italics, profanity, or obscenity
o   point of view shifts, without the proper formatting to indicate them
o   poor punctuation, grammar, or spelling errors
o   poor formatting

‘Lack of Depth’ problems are often more endemic, but can usually be fixed by the writer thinking more deeply about character, action/plot, dialogue, and/or style. The following are ‘lack of depth’ issues created by shallowness (or extremes) in character and plot. These can include:

o   dull openings that lack a ‘hook’
o   character stereotypes (clichés)
o   unsympathetic or 'Mary Sue' protagonists
o   lack of character motivation
o   lack of character risk (low stakes)
o   shying away from difficult scenes and/or cutting them too short, too soon
o   solving the protagonist's problems too easily
o   neglect – forgetting to offer the reader answers by the end
o   neglect – failure to tie up loose ends by the end
o   convenient dialogue to fill in the reader ('As you know, Bob...')
o   frames (a story within a story)
o   info-dumps
o   little foundation for the premise or lack of proper set-up for key scenes
o   logic faults
o   predictable plot twists or outcome
o   too many characters, or too much complexity in the action

Writer manipulation shows up when a writer:

o   is so enamored of his research, that he goes overboard on detail (forcing the reader to listen)
o   fills in the reader with common knowledge that the reader already knows
o   indulges in purple prose
o   indulges in soapbox prose
o   indulges in too much mood (which is usually depressing and offers little in the way of action to make it worthwhile).

In short, readers will believe almost any tale you spin, as long as you avoid the above and give them a smooth and exciting read. I'll address many of these points in future ABC posts.

Stay tuned.

Friday, August 23, 2013

HYBRID BOOKS, ARE THEY SALEABLE?

WHEN I WAS AT WHEN WORDS COLLIDE IN CALGARY, one of the reading panels I was on was the ‘Hybrid Historical Readings’ panel, which I shared with Graeme Brown and Ronald Hore. As we only had an hour to read, we didn’t have time to talk about what we considered a hybrid novel to be, or how cross-genre books fit into the ever changing paradigm of the publishing world.

Six months earlier and before I signed with Five Rivers Publishing: when my agent was hoping to interest one of the Big Five Publishers in New York, she was told, over and over, that the editors liked The Tattooed Witch, but there was one problem: they didn’t know where it would fit in a bookstore. I went to Jasper, Alberta, on a writing and evaluation retreat. On one of the worst weekends of my life, I considered rewriting the book as a women’s historical. I thought of giving up the vision, of tossing the magic, of limiting the love interest to only one (because, by formula, romance readers want only one love interest, not two). I spent an entire Saturday re-reading Witch and not knowing whether the book was any good or not. On the following Sunday, I vacillated between feeling numb and crying my eyes out. I’d spent six years on this novel, and I was being asked to consider rewriting it. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn’t. If I turned it into a strictly historical, I would destroy it. I would snuff the life from it, I would kill its soul.

One month later, I foresook visions of fame and riches and signed with Five Rivers Publishing, a small, but high quality press. Robert Runté, Editor in Chief, had heard me read the first two chapters from Witch two years earlier at When Words Collide, 2011. He told me then, that if I couldn't interest a big house, he would take the book. Luckily for me, not everyone thinks or works the way the Big Five do.

After the When Words Collide panel, I asked Robert for his take on hybrid books and how often they cross his desk at Five Rivers Publishing. This is what he had to say:

“It’s true that a lot of hybrid books come our way. The big presses are run by their marketing departments rather than editorial. After an editor pulls a book from the solicited submissions and advocates for it through the chain of the editorial department, it's the Director of Marketing and his army of sales reps who get the final word. And there’s no arguing with that, because the big presses have to make money for their shareholders. It would be irresponsible of them to choose books merely because they are good, when what matters is that they sell. They owe it to their shareholders to make a predictable return on investment (and the big publishers carry gigantic levels of debt and overhead) so they have to rely on the tried and true marketing channels.

Even the smaller presses, if they are tied to the legacy model of fixed print runs, cannot handle hybrids. It's difficult to risk your shirt on a novel you don't know how to market. In contrast, we at Five Rivers have no problem marketing it, because our category is 'great novels', or  ‘yet another Five Rivers-vetted novel'. We can take risks others can't, because we have low overheads and because the editors are still in charge - not marketing, not shareholders looking for a safe investment. Our sales model is built on the slow build, on word of mouth, on teachers adopting class sets. Three or four thousand copies a year would be too few for a large publisher to bother keeping a title in print, but over a decade, that's 40,000 sales the author didn't make. With the new publishing model, we'd be quite satisfied with 1,000 copies of a title a year, because that adds up to a significant piece of change over a couple of decades, and sales go up each time an author releases a new title, plus each time the press has another hit. So we can risk books that are cross-overs, or are too original, or are too ‘not-exactly-like-this-year's-best-seller’, because we're looking for great books, not safe, predictable sellers. 

 We believe there are still discriminating readers out there who follow authors and imprints and are not necessarily limited to a single bookshelf or category in a bookstore. And so far, we've been correct. We're already in the black after only three years in operation, which is considered an exceptionally strong showing in the publishing industry (and that, without any government subsidies).”

(Me again: I think what really makes me feel happy about Five Rivers taking on a hybrid book like The Tattooed Witch is summed up in this final statement from Robert.)

“I want to publish quality books, which means books that authors are really passionate about, not books dictated by agents and editors based on what they think (notoriously inaccurately) will sell. I want books with soul, not books that have been engineered to market specifics. I want to hear the author's voice, not that of a focus group. I’m not looking to publish titles that sell by meeting the lowest common denominator. I want, and have been getting, quality writing by writers who are writing from their vision, not a publishers’ needs. My fear is if we get a cross-over shelf in bookstores, then we'll get agents telling authors, “I could sell this if you just added a romance-paranormal sub-theme!" Bah, humbug! All it has to be to me is brilliant.”

(Thank you, Robert. You've restored my faith in the industry and in myself.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

GUEST INTERVIEW WITH MICHELL PLESTED, AUTHOR OF MIK MURDOCH, BOY SUPERHERO


I JUST FINISHED READING MICHELL PLESTED'S YA NOVEL, Mik Murdoch, Boy Superhero. Despite my editing Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales (a YA anthology published two years ago through Edge Publishing), I don't usually choose YA books to read for pleasure. This time, I'm glad I did. Once again, I'm surprised at how much I enjoyed reading a YA novel. I loved it because not only did it make me laugh (and cry), it was a refreshing and quick read that reminded me of what it is to be young. I wish I'd had this book to share with my own boys when they were little. Here are the questions I put to Michell:

1. To start off, please give us a short description of the novel. To what age is the book targeted? Was it your intention for the book to be read by that age group, as well as parents who might read the book aloud to their children? Mik Murdoch, Boy Superhero is the story of an eight year-old boy who decides to become a superhero to protect his home town of Cranberry Flats. The book is intended for ages 8 - 13 but it's been enjoyed by much younger children (read aloud by parents) and much older people. The oldest person I've heard from was 55 years-old who enjoyed the book. 

2. What was your inspiration for the book? I read a lot of comic books when I was young. I always wanted to have super powers of my own. This story has been percolating in my mind since I was a student in high school. When it was time to write the story, I used personal experiences, stories told to me by my family and my own imagination to create the story and world of Mik Murdoch. 

3. The novel is set in the small town of Cranberry Flats. Is Cranberry Flats based on a real location? What is your personal experience of small farming towns? Cranberry Flats is meant to be an every town with a strong influence from my home town. While I don't ever say it’s in Alberta (again, every town), the prairies definitely influenced the setting. I grew up on a farm outside of Ponoka, Alberta and went to school there. I spent a lot of time walking around the town and know it very well. 

4. As much as you engage young readers with fun plot elements that will appeal (tree forts, caring for a pet, wanting to be a superhero), you also deal with difficult themes – bullying and its roots, poverty, criminal activity, and delinquent behavior.  Did you have these issues in mind when you started writing the book? Why these particular concerns? When I was writing the novel, I wanted there to be an element of realism to it. I didn't want it to be just about silliness. Kids can see through that from a mile away. There had to be story lines that would resonate with reader, so I had to give some thought to what kids see. Bullying was number one on the list. The criminal part was a natural fit with Mik being a superhero. Delinquency found its way into the story naturally. 

5. For only being eight, turning nine years-old, Mik is a wonderful character. He’s inventive, brave, compassionate, and protective of his family and town. I love the fact that he learns some valuable lessons along the way, ie. honesty is the best policy (when he realizes he needs to confess to his parents about his involvement in rounding up the Halloween candy bandits), a good deed is its own reward (when he uses his own birthday money to provide food for Ed and Lucy Clancy and their baby), and to never give up (when he and Miss Purdy fall into a cave and can’t get out). Did you set out to write about these things as a way to encourage young people to act honestly, bravely, and with compassion? Is this your way of providing an example? Mik is the kid I wanted to be when I was growing up. In many ways, he’s the person I want to be now. I didn't want the story to be preachy. I wanted it to be fun and inspirational for whoever reads it. I wanted to show that good deeds can be their own reward, but there are costs to taking risks, as well. 

6. I found the book extremely funny in places. I loved Mik discovering what happens when he microwaves bugs, or when he pokes a zombie and it turns out to be Mr. McGrady taking a nap. I’m sure most young readers will find the farting and oil-pooping steers hilarious. Kids and adults find different things funny. How do you choose what to include? How do you set things up so they’re funny? One of the things I learned when I was writing Mik Murdoch is that when you’re young, everything is new. I thought back to some of my first experiences and how serious they seemed at the time, but funny when I look back on them. I put those stories in for multiple reasons: as a bit of a lesson for those youth who haven't run across the problem, as a laugh for people who have seen something like it before, and to show Mik’s innocence. The microwave oven scene is a favourite of mine. Just before it happens, the audience is already groaning and anticipating the punch line, which is fun. When I write humour, it’s usually situational. You and I would know that Mr. McGrady is taking a nap. A boy with Mik’s imagination automatically thinks he's dead. The difference in perspective—Mik's and the readers—is where the humour comes out. 

7. The major fantasy element in the book is when Mik and Miss Purdy, the librarian, discover the Migitak Cave of Magic. Are the Migitaks based on a real First Nations people? Does an actual First Nations myth of a magical cave that bestows magical powers on whoever can find it, exist? The Migitaks are not a real First Nation's people, but they are based on many of the tribes I have read about and have encountered personally. I didn't want to use an actual indigenous tribe because I never want to be disrespectful of any one people. I created the Migitaks to have the same sense of love of nature and stewardship of the natural world that actual First Nations people have as a way to honour them all. The magical cave is purely a story construct, although I know that the mythos of the magical cave has been used before in folklore and legend.  

8. You leave some parts of the plot unfinished, which makes me wonder what more is going to happen to Mik. You’ve just finished penning the sequel. Will we see more of the Turkey Men and The Boss? Miss Purdy and her new Superhero powers? Mik and the magical red berry given to him by the Migitak Elder? I purposely left some story threads dangling, because Mik's story is far from over. In fact, there are plans for at least five more books in the series. The magical red berry will be important in the next story. Will Mik get a power from the berry? Possibly. The Big Boss may, or may not, show up again. The Turkey Men were hired goons who can be replaced by pretty much anyone. You also asked about Ms. Purdy. I'd like to write a series about her one day. I just need the time to write it. She might show up in future Mik Murdoch books, but I don't have any concrete plans for her at this time. The character you should really be asking about, and who shows up in the future, is the Migitak Elder. The book I just finished writing, Mik Murdoch: The Power Within, is about consequences. While protecting Cranberry Flats and its citizens, Mik gains the attention of a vicious flash mob and is forced into hiding. The thing about being a boy superhero is, there's always some mystery or another that needs investigating, no matter where he is. Will Mik unravel the mysteries he's faced with and be able to go home? Only time, and a lot of luck, will tell.

(Thanks, Michell. If you'd like to read Mik Murdoch, Boy Superhero, or buy it for a young reader who will enjoy it, you can purchase it from Five Rivers Publishing here. Mik Murdoch: The Power Within will be released some time next year.)

Michell's Bio: Michell (Mike) Plested is an author, editor, blogger, and podcaster living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He writes in multiple genres, particularly Science Fiction, Fantasy, and YA Adventure. He's the host of several pod-casts including Get Published, (2009, 2011 and 2013 Parsec Finalist), the SciFi/Comedy Galaxy Billies (Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets The Beverley Hillbillies) and Boyscouts of the Apocalypse (Zombie horror meets boy scouts), a part of the Action Pack Podcast. His debut novel Mik Murdoch, Boy Superhero was published August 1, 2012 and is on the Prix Aurora shortlist ballot for Best YA Novel. His anthology, A Method to the Madness: A Guide to the Super Evil was released in April, 2013. 

Next Post: Hybrid Books: it's a Fantasy, it's an Historical, it's a Noir...Just What Genre is It? And is it Saleable?

Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

THE ABC'S OF HOW 'NOT' to WRITE SPECULATIVE FICTION: A is for ADVERBS and OTHER UNNECESSARY WORDS


WHEN DIANE WALTON AND I CONDUCTED our Live Action Editing panel last weekend at When Words Collide in Calgary, one of the comments that came up was concerning the use of adverbs. Adverbs have been discussed many times and in many books and blogs, most recently, to my notice, by Stephen King in his On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft. King goes on at length about how adverbs are unnecessary and a sign of fearful or lazy writing.

I think most people are divided on this issue. Some folks insist that adverbs are anathema, while others maintain they aren’t. I use adverbs, but I use them sparingly and only if they serve a purpose. I agree with King when he points out how adverbs can actually weaken the meaning of a sentence. If we want to write tightly, they can be clutter, as shown in the following example:

      “Get out of there,” Anna said nervously.
      “I’m not going to fall,” Jason replied carelessly.
      “You’ll break your neck,” Anna insisted loudly.
      “Give it a rest. I’m fine,” Jason replied testily.

For me, the ‘ly’ endings grate on the ear. They create a repetition that gets in the way of the story, drawing focus on themselves when the reader should be involved in the plot. Further, the dialogue can be tightened; once the players are established, there’s no reason to indicate who is speaking each time. The ‘said, replied, insisted’ might be replaced with action or body language.

Here’s a better way to write the above scene:

      “Get out of there.” Anna’s face was tight. Her lips formed a hard line. Why does he always push my buttons? she wondered.
      “I’m not going to fall.” Jason leaned further, dangling over the precipice. A clump of dirt slid from the cliff’s side, disappearing into thin air.
      “You’ll break your neck.” She clawed at his shirt.
      “Give it a rest. I’m fine.” Jason threw off her hand. 

Of course, the above example could be tightened even further, but it does illustrate how adverbs can get in the way. That said, sometimes adverbs are necessary.  Take this example:

      Anna laughed.
      Anna laughed nervously.

In this case, I would keep nervously, because it modifies laughed in such a way that using laughed alone can’t. Depending on the context, I might replace laughed nervously with a single verb, but I would have to choose one that comes closest to my meaning. In this case, tittered, chortled, and sniggered don’t.

The modifier very is another word that people treat as if it’s some kind of writing sin. In most cases I’d agree that it’s unnecessary. On the other hand, if very is used in dialogue and reflects the speaker and his context, I use it. Here’s both a wrong way and a right way to use it:

      He moved very quietly down the hall. 

A better way of putting this might be 'he tiptoed down the hall' or 'he passed down the hall, making no sound'. Compare this with how I use ‘very’ from a scene in The Tattooed Seer. Joachín is taking Miriam away from the Tribe, so they might spend their second night as a married couple together. He sets the idea of discovery in her mind, which is both a risk and a turn-on:
  
“There is a sheltered cove, up ahead. I’ve left a blanket there.”
             He had planned ahead? She wasn’t sure which roused her more—that he had done so, or that they had no tent to cover them.
             “But won’t someone see?”
             “The Tribe won’t spy on us.”
             “But what if a fishing boat goes by?”
             He regarded her somberly. “If it does, we’ll have to be very still, hardly moving. It’s dark. We’ll blend in with the sand. If anyone glances our way, they’ll have a hard time seeing us. On the other hand, once the moon rises, we might cast shadows. If we sweat, our bodies will gleam. Hopefully, no one’s out there. But if they are, we’ll have to take our chances.”

I could delete ‘very’, but I like how it modifies ‘still’. Even more, I like Joachín’s reason for using 'very'. He’s hoping to appear cautious, when that isn’t his aim at all.

Bottom line: with adverbs and other modifiers, write cleanly, specifically, and make every word do its job. (Note: if I didn't use the adverbs cleanly and specifically to modify 'write', my meaning would be different.) Make sure your adverbs don't get in the way of the plot's flow. Use them sparingly, when they contribute to character, or if they're an aspect of your voice or personal writing style. 

Next post: Guest Interview with Michell Plested, YA author of 'Mik Murdoch, Boy Superhero'.

Stay tuned.